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My UBC Statement of Purpose

Brian M. Watson, Statement of Purpose

This is the Statement of Purpose I used in applying for UBC!

How do the classifications that make up our most private interiorities—gender, sexuality, erotic interests—come to exist, and how are they perpetuated?

While it might be said that these categories lie at the primordial and unanswerable core of Western society, a number of historians have demonstrated that they only manifest as discrete categories of power in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. In spite of their recent origins, the impacts of these identities are indisputable, and, as new ones ‘emerge’ and proliferate the importance of understanding them only grows. 1

Despite this, cultural heritage organizations dedicated to documenting and preserving sometimes-ephemeral identities utilize knowledge organization systems that fail to recognize or represent the users of these terms accurately. For example, Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) contains terms describing marginalized groups criticized as misleading or outrightly offensive. Solutions so far offered by library and information science professionals, including the use of folksonomies or social tagging have been matched by a near-equal amount of research pointing out issues with tagging and uncontrolled vocabularies that lack meaning: there is “still a lot to lose.”2 These are deeply unsatisfying answers, and give the impression of a field at an impasse. This is unacceptable: personal identity terms are not unimportant, bias-free scientific terminology. They describe our innermost desires and outward goals.

For these reasons, I am applying for a PhD. in Information Studies at the University of British Columbia’s iSchool. My research, which bridges a critical gap between knowledge organization and archival studies, contends that questions of identity and classification in GLAMs are not resolvable within the current paradigm.3 The same nineteenth-century ‘catalogomania’ that produced LCSH also produced the classifications that the modern social sciences presume to measure. To modify one is to depend upon or modify the other: it is a self-eating ouroboros. To examine and thereby intervene in this cycle, my proposed project is comprised of two complementary parts, which I will develop in a variety of different ways.

First, I argue that sexology’s attempt to scientifically classify amorphous and unclassifiable human sexualities provides a valuable demonstration of the limits to—and possibilities of—knowledge organization and archiving. Throughout the discipline’s history, two consistent compulsions reocurr: (1) the creation of archives of human evidence and, (2) the taxonomization of that evidence. Whether it is scales of degeneration, gender, or sexuality, the resulting categories become ‘identities’ or ‘orientations,’ are adopted by the public (and by GLAMS), and are carried onward via respect du fonds and the alignment of bodies. 4

As a result, I believe that sexology can and should be studied as archival knowledge organization system that classifies, organizes and preserves gender, sexuality, and more. To examine this process I will trace the sexual nomenclature used for queer and minoritized identities through the archives that named and shaped them. In other words: to move forward, we should ‘turn’ to the catalogs and controlled vocabularies of archives and special collections, which frequently reckon with material that does not fit into standard subject headings.

By assembling these categories and examining alternative approaches, I will move on to the second part of my project, which builds on this reclamatory research to answer the problems of the here and now. How can cultural heritage organizations represent intersectionality, diversity, multiplicity? I will work to develop a historically-based linked data vocabulary designed to capture variations and ‘deviations’ in sex, sexuality, and erotic impulse over time and place.5 As queer thesauri have been “powerful tools for challenging and remaking information hierarchies and the social hierarchies embedded within them,” I propose that a queer linked data vocabulary could create spaces of reclamation, redescription, reappropiation, and renaming. 6

  1. Cover, Rob. Emergent Identities: New Sexualities, Genders and Relationships in a Digital Era. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2019. ↩︎

  2. Gross, Tina, Arlene G. Taylor, and Daniel N. Joudrey. “Still a Lot to Lose: The Role of Controlled Vocabulary in Keyword Searching.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 53, no. 1 (January 2, 2015): 1–39. ↩︎

  3. In terms of hashtags, I sit at the intersection of #critcat, and #critarch ↩︎

  4. Cifor, Marika. “Aligning Bodies: Collecting, Arranging, and Describing Hatred for a Critical Queer Archives.” Library Trends 64, no. 4 (2016): 756–75. ↩︎

  5. Drabinski, Emily. “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction.” The Library Quarterly 83, no. 2 (April 2013): 94–111. and Tennis, Joseph T. “The Strange Case of Eugenics: A Subject’s Ontogeny in a Long‐lived Classification Scheme and the Question of Collocative Integrity.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 63, no. 7 (July 2012): 1350–59. ↩︎

  6. Drucker, Donna J. “How Subjects Matter: The Kinsey Institute’s Sexual Nomenclature: A Thesaurus (1976).” Information & Culture: A Journal of History 52, no. 2 (2017): 207–28., 208. ↩︎

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Brian M. Watson
Brian M. Watson
Archivist, Historian, Digital Humanist